Blurred lines: how does cross-disciplinary research work in practice

Blurred lines: how does cross-disciplinary research work in practice
Loughborough University
              Institutional Repository

    Blurred lines: how does
   cross-disciplinary research
        work in practice
This item was submitted to Loughborough University's Institutional Repository
by the/an author.

Citation:  MALLABAND, R.A.L. and HAINES, V., 2014. Blurred lines: how
does cross-disciplinary research work in practice. UbiComp `14 Adjunct Pro-
ceedings of the 2014 ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and
Ubiquitous Computing: Adjunct Publication, September 13th-17th 2014, Seat-
tle, WA, USA, pp.963-970.

Additional Information:

   • c   2014 ACM. This is the author's version of the work.         It
     is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use.
     Not for redistribution.    The denitive version was published at:

Metadata Record:

Version:    Accepted for publication

Publisher:    c ACM

Please cite the published version.
Blurred lines: how does cross-disciplinary research work in practice
Blurred Lines: How Does Cross-
                               Disciplinary Research Work In Practice
                                                                              This paper describes how cross-disciplinary research
Becky Mallaband                                                               works in practice, illustrated through examples and
Loughborough Design School                                                    experience from two large cross-disciplinary domestic
Loughborough University                                                       energy research projects. The paper discusses the
Loughborough, Leicestershire                                                  challenges of working across disciplines in this context
LE11 3TU, UK                                                                  and suggests a framework which helps to bridge the                                                       gap between technology developers or engineers and
Victoria Haines
Loughborough Design School                                                    Author Keywords
Loughborough University                                                       Cross-disciplinary; User Centred Design; Domestic
Loughborough, Leicestershire                                                  energy demand reduction
LE11 3TU, UK                                                        ACM Classification Keywords
                                                                              C.4 [Performance of systems]: Design Studies
                                                                              D.2 [Software engineering]: Design tools and
                                                                              techniques, User interfaces
                                                                              H.1.2 [User/machine systems]: Human factors
Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for     H.5.2 [Information interfaces and presentation]: User
personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are
not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that
                                                                              Interface--- Ergonomics, User-centred design, Theory
copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights   and methods, evaluation/methodology
for components of this work owned by others than the author(s) must be        General terms: Design, Human Factors
honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, or
republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior
specific permission and/or a fee. Request permissions from                    Introduction                                                          Historically, there have been distinct boundaries
UbiComp '14, September 13 - 17 2014, Seattle, WA, USA                         between academic subject areas and even specialities
Copyright is held by the owner/author(s). Publication rights licensed to      within those subject areas. However, more recently it
ACM 978-1-4503-3047-3/14/09…$15.00.                                           has been acknowledged that for work in complex areas                                     to be most effective, research between and across
                                                                              disciplines is necessary [1] and recent funding calls
have reflected this need for cross-disciplinary working    the DEFACTO project (October 2012 - October 2017)
[2].   This blurring of the lines between disciplines      also funded by the RCUK’s Energy Programme.
provides new perspectives to big research challenges,
such as the reduction in energy demand [3,4],              The    CALEBRE    project   aimed   to    establish   a
particularly in domestic properties, however, this         comprehensive refurbishment package for reducing
collaboration can also result in more challenging          domestic carbon levels that was specifically acceptable
working relationships [5].                                 and appealing to householders and through this central
                                                           focus    on  users,   brought   together     technology
The specific challenges associated with cross-             developers, User Centred Design (UCD) experts and
disciplinary working, combined with the documented         specialists from other disciplines. Through the
challenges of working within the home [6,7], present       successful completion of the CALEBRE project, many
further complexities. By considering the home as a         lessons were learnt in relation to cross-disciplinary
holistic system, the tension of exploring an engineering   working. Some of these have since been applied within
solution within a social environment must be managed.      DEFACTO, another cross-disciplinary project involving
This can raise interesting questions of how engineering    engineers & UCD experts, which aims to investigate
problems are researched, when those with the               how the use of digital control and feedback
expertise to do so may not have the appropriate social     technologies in the home enable reduction and
research skills. Carrying out research within the home     management of heating energy use.
requires an interface with the lives of participants.
Disruption to daily life should be minimal, whilst still   Whilst the multi-disciplinary work conducted on the
enabling the collection of useful data. This requires      CALEBRE project was effective and resulted in
maintaining     a   balance    between    meeting    the   significant advances in understanding (demonstrated by
engineering and monitoring needs of a research project     a range of published multidisciplinary papers [e.g. 8, 9,
whilst keeping the householders happy and disturbance      10]), the DEFACTO project seeks a greater level of
to a minimum. In addition, there are particular            integration and collaboration in order for researchers to
challenges when designing innovative or future             work together to investigate the research questions
technologies for the home, where user wants and needs      with a shared methodological approach [11].
relating to specific technological solutions must be
gathered. This paper focuses on the cross-disciplinary     Methods
role which bridges this gap between the technology         The CALEBRE project included a householder study
developer and the householder.                             conducted in the home, to provide information for the
                                                           user centred design experts and the technology
The research                                               developers. It became clear that there were specific
This paper draws upon the work of the CALEBRE project      challenges with this type of collaboration and therefore
(October 2008 - April 2013), funded by the Research        certain skills and activities were identified which could
Councils UK (RCUK) Energy Programme and E.ON, and          help to build bridges between the disciplines. To
explore these further, semi-structured interviews with      managed by the UCD experts who had good social and
                                   three UCD practitioners and four engineers were used        communication skills [12] and who were able to liaise
                                   to investigate past experience of academic researchers      across disciplines [13], effectively building bridges. The
                                   working     on    cross-disciplinary    research   across   framework developed (see Figure 1) sets out four ways
                                   engineering and UCD domains. This particularly related      in which the UCD expert intermediates between the end
                                   to research in the home, to see if the experiences of       user (or householder) and technology developer at
                                   researchers on the CALEBRE project were typical.            different stages through the project: the UCD expert
                                   Questions focused on any issues researchers had             relates, the UCD expert specialises, the UCD expert
                                   experienced as well as ways they had found which            builds knowledge, the UCD expert translates.
                                   improved working with those from other disciplines. All
                                   participants had more than 10 years’ experience in          In order to demonstrate this process and illustrate the
                                   their area of expertise, had participated in cross-         stages, the physical act of building a bridge has been
                                   disciplinary research projects and had commercial or        used. This is intended to help those involved in cross-
                                   consultancy experience, which ensured they had a            disciplinary working, particularly when relating to the
                                   broad range of collaboration experiences to draw upon.      home, to visualise and understand the different stages
                                   All participants had experience as a principal or co-       which need to occur in order to develop strong and
                                   investigator of a research project, meaning that they       effective    working   relationships    and    valuable
                                   had an overview of a collaborative research project in      collaborative results.
                                   addition to their own cross-disciplinary research
                                   experience. The information gathered from these             Stage one: The UCD expert relates
                                   interviews, along with evidence from the CALEBRE            The first stage in the process of building a bridge
                                   project, enabled reflection on the nature of cross-         between the householder and the technology developer
                                   disciplinary research and role of the UCD expert, which     begins with laying foundations on both sides. This is a
                                   led to the conceptualisation of four key stages to          relational foundation, enabling the building of trust and
                                   support cross-disciplinary working. In addition, six        rapport. This is done through communication and
                                   principles for effective cross-disciplinary working were    contact with both the householders and the technology
                                   identified and then evaluated using an online survey        developers, predominantly through face to face
                                   with 52 academic respondents. Both the stages in            meetings, but also through emails and other remote
Figure 1: Bridge building stages
                                   cross-disciplinary working and the finalised principles     forms of contact. This builds an understanding of the
[15] ©Becky Mallaband              are presented in this paper.                                householders’ or technology developer’s point of view,
                                                                                               priorities and level of understanding, which further
                                   Learnings from the CALEBRE project                          enhances communication.
                                   As already mentioned, monitoring energy use within
                                   the home has particular challenges due to the use of an     Failure to complete this stage successfully or a
                                   engineering approach within a social environment.           breakdown in relational foundations can prove
                                   Through the CALEBRE project, this tension was               detrimental to the research. If relations with the
householder are damaged, this can make it difficult to     describe these methods in more detail]. All methods
                               acquire knowledge and information from them, due to a      and investigations then built upon these initial
CALEBRE: Interactive           lack of trust and engagement in the research. This is      relational ties.
timeline activity used to      why it is so important to ensure care and time is taken
gather information and build   to establish a relationship with the householder early,    In the DEFACTO project, much of the initial interaction
relationship with              from recruitment onwards. Likewise, if relations with      with householders was conducted from a distance, due
householders [13]              the technology developer are damaged, then this may        to the nature of the recruitment process. This provides
                               prevent them receiving appropriate information, or not     additional complexity to building a relationship with the
                               appreciating the value of the information being            householder. Project branding was developed so that all
                               provided, meaning they are not able to include the user    literature and communication from the project team
                               research within their product development.                 was recognisable and consistent (see Figure 3). This
                                                                                          was intended to provide a professional appearance, to
                               Whilst every effort may be made to build these             help increase the level of trust participants placed in
                               relational foundations early on in the research process,   the project. Information sheets were provided to all
                               the collaborative nature of cross-disciplinary research    interested participants which included photographs and
                               means that there are likely to be tensions along the       names of the research team. This was intended to
Figure 2: CALEBRE timeline     way. Those from different disciplines may be compared      prompt some level of familiarity from the outset, in
exercise ©Loughborough         to those of diverse nationalities with different           order to reduce some of the barriers which may be
University                     languages and cultures, which can understandably lead      experienced when communicating with a stranger. In
DEFACTO: Project branding      to misinterpretation and confusion. Coupled with the       addition, one member of the research team held the
ensured a professional         multi-cultural nature of research teams, it is clear to    ‘cohort interaction’ role and managed communication
approach and uniformed         see how simple relational breakdowns can occur.            with householders, and therefore most of the contact
contact                                                                                   came directly from them or had been approved by
                               In practice: In the CALEBRE project, this relational       them. Part of this role was also as a ‘gate keeper’ to
                               foundation was built with the technology developers        the householders, protecting them from unnecessary
                               through regular meetings and a series of more formal       hassle and contact. Although necessary for the
                               interviews, exploring the development of their             participants, this role has the potential to cause tension
                               technologies, the problems they were trying to resolve     within a project team, particularly where requests to
                               and the information they needed from end users. With       contact the householder are overruled.
                               the    householders,   relational    foundations    were
                               established through activities at the beginning of the     All emails were sent from a project email address (to
                               data collection process, planned to help put the           ensure continuity) but were signed from the cohort
Figure 3: DEFACTO project      householder at ease and build a trusting relationship.     interaction researcher, to give the feel of personal
branding ©Loughborough
                               These included discussing how long they had lived in       contact    and   continuity.  Any   interviews   with
                               their home and what work they had done to improve it,      householders were then attended by this researcher
                               using a magnetic timeline tool, see Figure 2 [7, 14 & 15   (and a chaperone) which meant that the householders
had already experienced a level of contact and               In the DEFACTO project, engineers required particular
relationship which could then be built upon during the       information from the householders in relation to their
interview.                                                   house structure, heating system and energy use. Whilst
                                                             some of this information was collected from the
Stage two: The UCD expert specialises                        householders themselves, there were certain issues
Following the establishment of relational foundations        encountered when they did not have or know the
with the technology developer and the householder, the       particular information required. This raises the issue of
UCD expert is then able to provide specific user             relying on householders for more technical information
information. The engineer or technology developer is         and presumes a certain level of knowledge that may be
likely to have very specific questions which need            missing. Part of this specialising stage is ensuring that
answering, whether that be in relation to users’             the technology developer or engineer understands the
preferences and habits or specific data and monitoring       nature and format of the information they will receive
of appliances and energy usage. Due to the difficulties      and, importantly, the practical challenges associated
of cross-disciplinary working discussed previously and a     with research in homes, which may mean they will not
difference in the skill sets of experts, a specialist is     necessarily receive full sets of the desired information.
needed to effectively extract and obtain this
information from users. This first requires the relational   Stage three:         The     UCD     expert      builds
building with the engineer, in order to understand what      knowledge
they need from the process and why. This requires            As discussed, not only does the UCD expert collect
‘immersion’ so that there is a level of understanding by     information for the technology developer and aid
the UCD expert and often ‘translation’ to understand         collaboration between the disciplines, they also build
how the needs of the technology developer can be             knowledge relating to users and the process of
transformed into a methodological approach that              investigating their needs in order to advance their own
gathers the appropriate information.                         field.

In practice: In the CALEBRE project, this included           When conducting this kind of socio-technical,
activities such as householder interviews, carried out       collaborative research, it would be easy for the UCD
within the home, which investigated particular aspects       expert to merely collect the necessary information in
of habitual practices relating specifically to technology    their role as the specialist; however, in order to ensure
design and a study into domestic hot water use, which        their knowledge base is extended, they must use the
provided specific information on the householders’           opportunity to gather specific information about users
practices and needs. This information was gathered           and the effectiveness of research approaches in this
with a range of tools [7], all of which were enabled         context. If not, it is likely that the UCD expert becomes
through the prior relationship established with the          a vehicle by which others conduct their research,
householder.                                                 limiting their own potential. However, much of this
                                                             responsibility lies with the UCD expert to include the
Examples:                data they wish to collect. The addition of this kind of      Therefore, the questions need to be translated into an
                                   data collection conducted by researchers with user           appropriate and engaging methodology.
CALEBRE: Technology                centred skills also means that the process can be made
information sheets to              more interactive and engaging for householders, which        In practice: In the CALEBRE project, information
translate technical                is important for retaining participants, particularly over   relating to specific new energy-efficient technologies
information for householders       a long study period.                                         was translated into a form which was understandable
                                                                                                by householders, though the use of simple information
                                   In practice: In the CALEBRE project, this knowledge          sheets and accompanying explanation (see Figure 4).
                                   was predominantly built through the development of           This enabled people to comment on the technologies,
                                   innovative methods as part of the householder                even though they had no prior knowledge of them. The
                                   interviews and the investigation into cross-disciplinary     information gathered was then translated into a format
                                   working. The DEFACTO project also utilised householder       which would be of more use to the technology
                                   interviews to gather this information, enabling the          developers, by analysing and collating qualitative
                                   continued building of relations with householders and        responses and translating some of this information into
                                   understanding of their routines, activities and              requirement trees and specifications.
                                   behaviours in the home. This stage enforces the need
Figure 4: CALEBRE technology       to value one another’s area of work. It is most effective    In the DEFACTO project, householders were asked to
information sheets                 when all partners in the project appreciate that their       describe how they used their heating system, through
©Loughborough University
                                   information is not all that needs to be collected from       the use of scenarios, supported by a physical
DEFACTO: Uncovering the            the householders, so that a holistic understanding of        demonstration of the actions in their home. They were
householders understanding         the system can be formed.                                    also asked to explain how they thought their heating
of their heating system                                                                         system worked, using magnetic icons to represent the
                                   Stage four: The UCD expert translates                        component parts of the system and a white board on
                                   The final stage in the process of bridge building is         which the researcher could annotate and translate their
                                   translation. This is seen both in the translation of user    comments (see Figure 5). This information was then
                                   information into a suitable form for the technology          translated again into a form that could be recognised
                                   developers and in the translation of technological           and used by the other researchers on the project.
                                   products and concepts into a form which the user can
                                   understand and respond to. Much of the work carried          Principles of cross-disciplinary working
                                   out when conducting cross-disciplinary work requires         Whilst this bridge building framework depicts the stages
                                   some form of translation.                                    necessary for socio-technical collaboration, it is
Figure 5: Example of interactive
                                                                                                recognised that particular skills, attitudes or activities
activity to uncover householders
understanding of their heating     Whilst technology developers may have very specific          are necessary within those stages in order for them to
system ©Loughborough               information that they wish to collect, asking questions      be successful. Therefore, through experience of the
University                         out of context or with complex terminology may make          CALEBRE project and interviews with various academics
                                   it difficult for householders to provide answers.            involved in socio-technical cross-disciplinary research, a
set of principles to be considered during cross-           understand. This should not include discipline-specific
disciplinary working were developed, evaluated and         vocabulary and where relevant, acronyms should be
refined. The principles were intended to aid those         expanded and explained. Where possible, time should
conducting this bridging role when working in a cross-     be taken to understand the preferred methods of
disciplinary context, particularly with technology         communication used by others.
developers, but are applicable for use by any member
of a cross-disciplinary project team. Whilst they should   Rapport: It is necessary to establish a good rapport
be of particular use within the relationship building      through regular contact with the people you are
stage, they can also be applied through all stages of a    working with across disciplines. Frequent face-to-face
research project. These six principles are:                contact is ideal where possible and time should be
                                                           devoted to building relationships through contact in the
Value: It is important to both respect and value those     early stages of the project. This may be through project
working within other disciplines. This includes both the   meetings, informal discussions, email exchanges or by
individual, their work and their opinions. Their input     other means.
should be valued and trusted and you should be open
to having your own ideas challenged. This in turn will     Iterate: Both the working relationship and the
help to facilitate good working relationships.             research carried out should be developed in an iterative
                                                           nature. The product, project, system etc. should be
Immerse: In order to communicate successfully with         developed through teamwork and regular contact,
someone from another discipline, it is important to        returning to previous stages to evaluate and expand.
spend time immersing yourself in their work and the
wider context. Whether this be a particular product or     Conclusion
an area of expertise, having a basic level of              This paper has highlighted the ways that blurred lines
understanding   will  enable    successful    personal     both between disciplines and between experts and
interaction.                                               users can be bridged through four distinct stages:
                                                           relating,    specialising,   building   knowledge      and
Communicate:      Findings and data should be              translating. This highlights the importance of strong
communicated clearly, in a format that is easy to          relational foundations and how these should form the
understand and requires little explanation. Care should    basis of cross-disciplinary work. The set of six principles
be taken to present results in an appropriate format for   to aid cross-disciplinary working, particularly in the
the audience. Communication of findings should occur       relationship building stages, further expand on how
throughout the process, not merely at the end.             researchers from different disciplines can work together
                                                           to improve the quality of the cross-disciplinary
Translate: In order to encourage understanding             research, essential in domestic energy demand
between disciplines, it is important to translate          reduction.
information into a format that others can easily
Acknowledgements                                            [9] Loveday, D., Vadodaria, K., Haines, V., Hewitt, N.,
The authors would like to thanks the funders of this        Hyde, T., Griffiths, P., Critoph, B., Eames, P., Banfill,
                                                            P., Gillott, M., Darlington, R., Hall, M. & Tsang, E.
research, the RCUK’s energy programme and E.ON, as
                                                            (2011) Refurbishing the UK's 'hard to treat' dwelling
well as the participants and project partners, without      stock: Understanding challenges and constraints. In
whom the work would not have been possible.                 proceedings     of    CIBSE     Technical  Symposium.
                                                            DeMontfort University, Leicester, UK, 6th-7th Sept
References                                                  2011, CIBSE (Chartered Institute of Building Services
[1] Hazas, M., Friday, A. & Scott, J. (2011) Look back      Engineers).
before leaping forward: Four decades of domestic            [10] Vadodaria, K., Loveday, D., Haines, V., Mitchell, V.,
energy inquiry, IEEE Pervasive computing magazine,          Mallaband, B. & Bayer, S. (2010) UK solid-wall
pp. 13-19.                                                  dwellings:    Thermal    comfort,    energy    efficiency
[2] Lowe, P. & Phillipson, J. (2009) Barriers to research   refurbishment and the user perspective - some
collaboration across disciplines: scientific paradigms      preliminary analysis from the CALEBRE project. In
and institutional practices. Environment and Planning A,    Proceedings of Adapting to Change: New Thinking on
41, pp. 1171-1184.                                          Comfort, 9-11 April, Network for Comfort and Energy
                                                            Use in Buildings: London, UK.
[3] Lomas, K. J. (2010) Carbon reduction in existing
buildings: A transdisciplinary approach. Building           [11] Wickson, F., Carew, A. L. & Russell, A. W. (2006)
Research & Information, 38(1), pp. 1-11.                    Transdisciplinary research: Characteristics, quandaries
                                                            and quality. Futures, 38(9), pp. 1046-1059.
[4] Uiterkamp, A. J. M. S. & Vlek, C. (2007) Practice
and outcomes of multidisciplinary research for              [12] Gulliksen, J., Lantz, A. & Boivie, I. (1999) User
environmental sustainability. Journal of Social Issues,     Centred Design: Problems and possibilities. A summary
63(1), pp. 175-197.                                         of the 1998 PDC & CSCW workshop. Centre for User
                                                            Orientated IT Design: Stockholm, Sweden.
[5] Evans, R. & Marvin, S. (2006 )Researching the
sustainable city: three modes of interdisciplinarity.       [13] Sherman, P. 2006, Chapter 1: An introduction to
Environment and Planning A, 38, pp. 1009-1028.              usability and user-centred design. In Usability success
                                                            stories., ed. P. Sherman, Gower, pp. 2-13.
[6] Coughlan, T. et al. (2013) Current Issues and
Future Directions in Methods for Studying Technology in     [14] Haines, V.J., Mitchell, V.A., & Mallaband, B. (2012)
the Home’. PsychNology Journal, (11)2, pp.159-184.          Merging a practice-orientated approach with an
                                                            engineering-driven product development: a case study
[7] Mallaband, B., Haines, V.J. & Mitchell, V.A. (2013).
                                                            on home improvement. Journal of Design Research,
Exploring Past Home Improvement Experiences to
                                                            10(1/2), p.28.
Develop Future Energy Saving Technologies. In
proceedings of ACM CHI 2013 Workshop: Methods for           [15] Mallaband, B. (2013) Integrating User Centred
Studying Technology in the Home, 27 April – 2 May,          Design into the development of energy saving
2013.                                                       technologies. PhD thesis, Loughborough University, UK.
[8] Banfill, P. F. G., Simpson, S. A., Haines, V. J. &
Mallaband, B. (2012) Energy-led retrofitting of solid
wall dwellings: Technical and user perspectives on
airtightness. Structural Survey, 30(3), pp. 267-279.
You can also read
NEXT SLIDES ... Cancel